Theology and Worship with Mike Cosper

Mike Cosper is the Worship and Arts Pastor at Sojourn Community Church in Louisvilly, KY. Sojourn is a beautiful model of gospel-centered community, ministry, mission, and worship, and when I thought of talking with someone about worship and theology I immediately emailed Mike. He was kind enough to share some great thoughts with us.

What place does theology have in corporate worship?

Our worship services are necessarily theological. It's never a question of whether or not we'll do theology when we gather - it's a question of what kind of theology, or of what depth of theology we will do.

The goal of a pastor of worship is to accurately and thoroughly give voice to the theology that shapes the life and practices of the church, and the goal of the gathering is to give language and expression to the core values an theology of the church.

How explicit should our theology be in corporate worship?

Our theology should be very clear. What we do when we gather shapes the ways our people think about life and faith, and we are either equipping them with meat and substance or with platitudes and sentimentalism.

I like how Kevin Twit puts it: "our gatherings should prepare people for their encounter with death."

How does theology shape what you do at Sojourn gathered?

We have a strong liturgical structure for our gatherings, and that flows from our theology of worship and our ecclesiology (theology of the church).

A biblical theology of worship tells us that Christians have only one call to worship (the call of the Gospel) and only one worship leader, our singing savior, Jesus Christ. Biblical texts like the book of Hebrews and Revelation show us that our Savior is at the center of worship, leading us in praise to the Father, while the Father calls us to praise the Son. The Spirit of God inhabits our hearts, makes the Gospel call effective, and stirs us to respond in worship.

Functionally, our gathering is shaped to remember the Gospel, remember the work of Christ, and celebrate him as the center and leader of our worship. For instance, we regularly try to remind the church that when they worship, they join the Son in glorifying the Father, they join the Father in glorifying the Son, and they join the Spirit in glorifying the Father and the Son. We also remind them that the worship leader on the platform isn’t doing something priestly or sacramental, but is just another member of the body of Christ. Only Jesus can lead us to throne room, only Jesus can make God’s presence powerful and intimate, and only the Holy Spirit can stir hearts. Worship leaders (and congregations, for that matter) merely participate in the glory-sharing work of the Trinity. So we cultivate humility and simplicity in our attitudes towards worship.

Ecclesiology is really important too. In the New Testament, we see the concept of worship as a time and place reality thoroughly deconstructed by Jesus (John 4), Paul (Romans 12), and the author of Hebrews. So one could be left with an understanding of worship that asks, “why gather?” I’ve developed a little memory device that helps teach the way that the Bible explains worship. It’s called “Worship 1,2,3”

Worship has ONE object – the triune God, revealed in the scripture as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Worship has TWO contexts – the broad context of all of life (unceasing, living-sacrifice worship) and the narrow context of the gathered church, who gathers to encourage and build one another up, offering a foretaste of what is to come when Christ returns an heaven and earth are joined together. (Jeremy Begbie calls this an “echo of the future,” which is one of the coolest phrases in all of Christendom.)

Worship has THREE audiences – Our Triune God is both the object of worship and one of its audiences, but the scriptures also tell us to pay attention to two other audiences – the Gathered Church (Colossians 3:16, Hebrews 10:23-24), and the watching world (1 Corinthians 14:22-40).

Can theology in worship be done poorly? How?

One way I think about this question is to refer to the device above. If one confuses the object of worship with the audience of worship, or diminishes one context over another, or one audience over another, it gets confusing, weird, or worse.

For instance, many worship leaders have encountered the eager, young theologian in their church who makes this statement: “Since worship is to God alone, we should only sing songs that speak directly to Him. We should not sing songs that address people, since we aren’t worshipping people.”

It’s a sweet sentiment, but it ignores the reality that our singing is for God and his church, and ignores the evidence from the Psalms that singing to people about God is clearly a welcome practice for God’s people.

Some movements have so emphasized the presence of outsiders that there is no meat, no substance, to build up the body of Christ. Other movements within the church deemphasize the Gathered body of Christ, and deemphasize the worship of the local church as a direct or indirect result. I recently heard Alan Hirsch essentially argue against the church gathering to sing because he believed that the oddity of the church gathering to sing was a hindrance to mission. It will make outsiders feel awkward, as the whole gathering of the church tends to do. I think the Bible, and history for that matter, would argue that singing is a deeply human act. In our disaffected and dehumanized techno-culture, singing is something that rehumanizes us in the church, reconnects us to one another and to history. Hirsch and others need to address the plain reality that the Bible calls us to gather and SING. The lack of a communal singing culture in the West today is a sad fact, but isn’t a reality that the church must embrace for the sake of mission. Go to a U2 or Springsteen concert and tell me people don’t want to gather and sing anymore. Maybe we just aren’t giving them anything worth singing at our gatherings... Which is a whole different issue altogether.

Worship is certainly an all of life reality, but it is also a practice that we embrace as a foretaste of heaven, gathering with Christ’s church out of exile, and joining our voices in hopes of a glorious day that is yet to come.

In a totally different stream of thought, I think many churches lack any real theology for worship. No one (including the leaders) know why the church is gathering or what their goal in gathering is. The service is only governed by a quest for a certain kind of emotional high, or a certain kind of mood. Our ecclesiology becomes a measuring stick by which we know the mission is accomplished in our gathering. Without any biblical, rooted ecclesiology, what is guiding us?

What advice would you give church leaders who recognize the need for theology to impact and characterize their worship gatherings?

One time, after a Sojourn service many years ago, Chip Stam (a prof at Southern Seminary and a brilliant mind on issues related to worship) gave me the most painful critique I’ve ever received. Essentially, he told me that the music was great, and the service was well executed for what it was, but that apart from the sermon, the entire thing could have been held in a Synagogue or a Unitarian church, and no one would have been offended. In a similar vein, I heard C.J. Mahaney say that at Sovereign Grace, they want to make sure no one who attends can ever think that worship is possible without a mediator.

I was crushed by Chip’s critique. Especially when I realized he was right. His comment spurred a journey that has led us to the liturgical model we practice now, where the Gospel is clearly proclaimed throughout the movements of the service. Liturgy isn’t the only way to prevent that from happening, but I would want to challenge worship leaders to ask what their measuring stick is in their planning. What is a well-planned service?

The Gospel needs to be proclaimed and celebrated in a way that prepares people for all of life – suffering, death, joy, births, successes, and failures. Our understanding of the depths of the Gospel will have a direct impact on the way we proclaim it in our gatherings. As John Wesley once said, people won’t leave a service quoting a sermon as often as they’ll leave singing a song. Worship leaders need to be pastors and theologians so that they can skillfully teach through songs and services what the Gospel has to offer us in each facet of life, so that when suffering and hard times come, they have the words in their hearts and minds to cling to the cross.

Be sure to share your thoughts on worship and Mike's words in the comments. If you are unfamiliar with some of the music released through Sojourn be sure to check out their albums Before the Throne, Advent Songs, and Over the Grave.

Previous Interviews:

Experiential Theology with Tom Nettles Theology and Preaching with John Koessler